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Trade Unions

Between a quarter and a fifth of employees in Greece are union members. There are only two major confederations, ADEDY covering the central, local and regional government, and GSEE covering the rest. Below this level there is a hierarchy of union structures, which are organisationally fragmented and politically divided.

There are no official figures for the number of trade union members in Greece but the trade unions’ own figures indicate they had 612,000 voting members in 2016. In relation to the total number of employees, which was 2,472,100 in the third quarter of 2016, this produces a union density figure of 25.8%.[1] However, ICTWSS database estimates that around a fifth of union members are unemployed or retired and are not employees. Taking that into account, it calculates union density in Greece in 2016 at 20.2%.[2]


There are two main trade union confederations in Greece: the GSEE, which organises private sector employees and employees in firms and sectors under public control, and ADEDY, whose membership is only civil servants, although these include teachers as well as those working in ministries and local authorities. 


The GSEE had 358,761 voting members eligible at its congress in March 2016 and ADEDY reported it had some 253,564 voting members at its congress in November 2016.[3]


In the past the two confederations expressed a wish to work together with the intention of moving towards an eventual merger. Although there are already a number of institutions which are run jointly by the two confederations including the research institute INE GSEE-ADEDY, there has been little recent progress towards a merger.


Greek law provides for three levels of trade union organisation. At the base are the primary level unions, of which there were 3,400 in 2007.[4] A primary union must have at least 21 members. It has legal autonomy and its operations are governed by law. In the past the primary level unions were largely occupationally based and often limited to a small geographic area. However, many are now company-based groupings and they can also be branches of larger national or regional bodies. The result is that, while, in theory, there may be several unions in a particular workplace, in practice, this is less common than in the past.


Above the primary level unions are the second level organisations. These are either industry or occupational federations, or regional organisations, known as labour centres. The primary level unions decide which secondary organisation to join, and in the GSEE this determines how the primary union sends its delegates to the national congress, whether through the industry/occupationally-based federations or through the geographically-based labour centres.


Finally there are the third level bodies, the confederations, composed of second level organisations. The GSEE is made up of around 150 second level organisations, and its website states it has 73 industry/occupationally-based federations and 81 regional labour centres.[5] ADEDY is organised mainly on a ministry or administration basis and lists 47 federations on its website.[6]


The largest industry and occupational federations in GSEE are: the federation for bank employees (OTOE) with 36,562 voting members; the federation of private employees (OIYE) with 22,709; and the building union (OMOIKEL with 12,139. The largest ADEDY federations are: the teachers’ federation (DOE) with 59,625 voting members; and the local government workers (POE-OTA) with around 37,500.[7]


One result of this structure is that trade unions in Greece are highly fragmented. Although the union confederations have made some efforts to reduce the fragmentation, for example by encouraging co-operation among industry federations, progress so far has been slow.


One reason may be that the financial pressures which have led to mergers in other countries have been less noticeable in Greece, as Greek unions (at second and third level) did not depend entirely on direct income from the membership for funds. They received an important contribution from the state through a fund into which all workers, whether unionised or not, contributed. This helped to pay for equipment, staff salaries and some overheads, such as postage and telephone costs. However, in November 2012, during the financial crisis that hit Greece, the contributions to the fund were cut by 50% and the OEE the institution responsible for providing finance the trade unions, among other things, was abolished. A new source of funding for trade unions was subsequently established within the budget of the public employment service (OAED), but since 2012 the amount provided has been sharply reduced. [8]


The trade union movement in Greece has traditionally been highly politicised with the major political parties represented directly in the trade union movement through organised political groupings. Recently these divisions have become very bitter and, in 2019, action by supporters of the PAME grouping (linked to the Communist Party) led to   three-yearly congress of GSEE in 2019 being twice abandoned after they occupied the congress premises, preventing the election of a new leadership. The president of the GSEE Yiannis Panagopoulos described these actions as “the violent obstruction of the electoral process” and “an attack on the core of democratic politics”.[9]


Because a new executive committee was not elected in 2019, the running of the GSEE is in the hands of an interim administration approved by the court in April 2019. In the 45-strong GSEE executive elected at the previous conference in 2016, the largest block, 15 members, came from the grouping aligned with the social democratic PASOK party, with the grouping linked to PAME in second place with 10 seats and a grouping linked to the centre-right New Democracy party in third place holding eight seats. A grouping linked to the left-wing SYRIZA party, which was in government at that stage held seven seats. The remaining five seats were in the hands of other political groupings.[10]


The 85-strong leadership of ADEDY is similarly divided, although here the largest group, with 18 seats in executive elected in 2016, is linked to New Democracy. The PAME-linked group is in second place with 15 seats, the PASOK group has 14 and the SYRIZA-linked group has 13, leaving four other smaller groupings with a total of 25.


The lack of precise figures makes it difficult to record detailed changes in trade union membership. However, the longer-term trends seem clear and show a marked difference between the public and private sectors. While union density in the private sector is now less than half the level it was in the mid-1980s, in the civil service and local government it is now 50% higher than it was 20 years ago. Overall, one third of union density has been lost. As a result, there are now major differences in the level of organisation between sectors of the Greek economy. While union density remains relatively high in the public sector and industries under public control or recently privatised, it is low in the fully private sector, which is dominated by very small companies.


Membership figures may become more precise in the future, as the New Democracy government elected in 2019 stated in July 2019 that it planned to introduce an electronic register of trade unions and trade unionists “with the aim of capturing and this addressing the organisational fragmentation of trade unionism”.[11] (It will also be used in strike ballots.)   However, it is uncertain how this will operate and whether it will be introduced.


It is also unclear how the very bitter political differences within the unions will play out in the longer term,

[1] Living and working in Greece: Eurofound, by Penny Georgiadou, (INE GSEE), July 2018

[2] J. Visser, ICTWSS Data base. version 5.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS), University of Amsterdam. September 2016

[3] Living and working in Greece: Eurofound, by Penny Georgiadou, (INE GSEE), July 2018

[4] Christos A Ioannou 2007, Challenges and Future Directions in Hellenic Industrial Relations, IREC 2007, Athens CIRN AUEB 27.7.2007

[5] https://gsee.gr/?page_id=41 (Accessed 29.07.2019)

[6] http://adedy.gr/omospondies/ (Accessed 29.07.2019)

[7] Living and working in Greece: Eurofound, by Penny Georgiadou, (INE GSEE), July 2018

[8] For more on trade union density trends and structures see From Divided “Quangos” to Fragmented “Social Partners”: The Lack of Trade Union Mergers in Greece, by Christos A Ioannou in Restructuring Representation, The Merger Process and Trade Union Structural Development in Ten Countries, pp. 139-164, Jeremy Waddington (editor)P.I.E-Peter Lang, Brussels 2005

[9] GSEE Press Release 18 March 2019

[10] GSEE Press Release 20 March 2016

[11] https://www.ethnos.gr/oikonomia/52757_erhetai-o-digital-syndikalismos-protasi-toy-ypoyrgeioy-gia-ilektroniko-mitroo (Accessed 30.07.2019)

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.